My earliest Christmas memories were formed in this large old room surrounded by old men wearing wide ties and their stoic grey haired wives.
A magnificent 20-foot tall Christmas tree stood with lights blazing in the center of the ballroom at the Sons of Norway Lodge. Sunday, December 23rd 1956.
My 5 year-old eyes reflected the colored lights as accordion and fiddle players coaxed old familiar folk tunes from ivory keys and instruments made of leather and wood. Grandparents and generations of their children danced an ever-widening circle around the giant tree. The wooden dance floor groaned as they stamped their feet to the music. Wind circled the large ballroom conjured by dancers scented with pine, wild-root hair tonic and lilac perfume.
An army of “Aunt’s” fueled the sweaty dancers with smoked ham, lutefisk mashed potatoes and platters piled high with delicacies. The “Aunties” stuffed the children full of buttered lefse laced with sugar and frosting laden cookies then ushered them wild and laughing back into the crowd.
Uncles captained the bar, sloshing beer and whiskey into glasses, or pouring shots of aquavit from bottles frozen in blocks of ice. The men teased the children into taking a “little sip” of the foul smelling liquid and laughed loudly at our grimace when the liquor hit the tongue.
Children were free to run through the crush of dancers or up the stairs to the balcony where a flock of cousins might pause to catch their breath. We’d drape our arms over the railing and watch the glittery scene spinning below.
Mid-way through the evening Santa burst into the room. Carrying an enormous bag of gifts over his shoulder he shouted a hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho,” startling the small children and amusing the grown-ups before excusing himself explaining – he had to return to his reindeer waiting patiently on the roof with his sleigh.
Liquor, food and exhaustion thinned the dancing cyclone as dancers found chairs. I climbed into my Grandpas lap. His carpenter arms held me tight against his starched white shirt and I could feel a deep rumble in his chest as he spoke Norwegian with the old-timers.
Their mysterious language fascinated me. They told stories of a sun that never set, mountains that cradled the sea and trolls who lived in dark stone caverns. My earliest Christmas memories were formed in this large old room surrounded by old men wearing wide ties and their stoic grey haired wives.
Fellow immigrants. Each had once packed what little they owned, boarded crowded ships and trusted a better life was to be found in America. The lodge was proof of their success and testament to their hard work. Christmas was a time to celebrate the “American” life they had carved from poverty.
The evening always ended searching the coatroom for our winter clothes amidst rows of rubber overshoes and a forest of wool overcoats. Bundled against the cold we left the hot building, swung open the oak double doors of the lodge and stepped onto a frosty sidewalk lined with snow-banks.
Station wagons and sedans bearing giant chrome bumpers idled patiently in the parking lot warming to carry us home. My Father led the way through rising columns of car exhaust tinted crimson by red taillights. He swung open the back door of our brown Chevrolet so I could climb up and settle in the backseat. I pressed my bare hand on the window and melted a hole in the frost so I could watch Christmas lights speed past as Father drove us home through the city streets.
I’m no longer a wide-eyed 5 year-old. Decades have passed since that Christmas party at the old Sons of Norway lodge. Our brown Chevrolet turned to rust long ago and it’s been years since I’ve heard Norwegian spoken fluently. I miss my family.
My Mother and Father, my Grandmas and Grandpas and the many uncles and aunts who worked hard to set the stage so love could illuminate the dark. Glitter, shiny wrapping paper and extravagant gifts only reflect the light. Love is what I long for not a pale reflection. I long for a belly full of cookies and my Grandpa’s strong arms. – Snake
Photo courtesy of Author